Warning: The following is semi-educational, and will absolutely destroy any scrap of your remaining self esteem. Enjoy!
Happy new year from your Early Bird, earthlings!
Isn’t this semester starting off swimmingly? You’ve loaded yourself with a vigorous course load and a boatload of extracurriculars, but so far you’re managing to stay on top of the world. Those ten page essays for class next week? Already done, and you understood every word in your Social Psychology of Inorganic Chemists textbook. You’re feeling pretty swell right now, and by swell I refer of course to your massively swelled head.
Let’s take you down a peg, shall we?
Meet the corvids. You see them everywhere, and even if you don’t see them, you certainly hear them constantly. It’s hard to miss those strident croaks and caws outside your window before dawn. You know how the song goes: Blackbird singing at the crack of three, shut your squawking beak and leave me be...
Our local corvidae cohabitants are the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos; the Common Raven, Corvus corax; and the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata. If you have trouble distinguishing between the three, crows are approximately 20 inch long sleek black birds that hang around in ominous-looking groups, ravens are crows on steroids with shaggier feathers, thicker necks and curved tips on their beaks, and blue jays are shiny blue with cute little mohawks.
The corvid family is a cosmopolitan group of birds including the ravens, crows, and blue jays. They’re big, they’re mercilessly territorial and mean, and they’re also dazzlingly intelligent. Though cephalic index is only a speculative measure for intelligence, corvids have one of the largest brain:body mass ratios of any bird, only slightly lower than the ratios for the great apes and humans. Their street smarts have allowed them to proliferate across every continent except Antarctica, but don’t be surprised if we start finding parka-donning crows dive-bombing penguins soon. Corvids are gregarious, meaning they thrive in groups, and children remain with their parents for several years after hatching, some even occupying the same territory for their entire lives. This is why you rarely see a lone crow, and if you do you can bet four more will come cawing soon. Corvids are also adaptable to the extreme, which is why they’ve thrived in our urbanized society. Crows will eat anything and everything in sight: seeds, berries, roadkill, hot dogs, socks. If it has discernible mass, it’s dinner.
In terms of sheer problem-solving capabilities, corvids put any college student to shame on the least sleep-deprived day. So I thought I’d test your knowledge with a little quiz- don’t worry, there’s no grade other than the degradation of your sense of human superiority.
For this exercise, I’d like you to imagine yourself as a large black bird, if you don’t already, of course. I’m going to present you with the information to solve a puzzle. Consider this a test of your bird’s-eye-view IQ.
Puzzle Number 1: The Worm in the Urn
In front of you on the ground is a large urn with water inside, and floating in that water is a juicy earthworm. You desperately want to slurp down that tasty pink morsel, but the water is too far down to reach. What do you do?
A) Accio annelid! B) Lean really far over the rim to try and lap up the worm with your tongue. C) Tip the urn over. D) Use your beak to plunk pebbles into the urn.
If you put A– Okay, I’m no Ravenclaw, but that didn’t work.
B– In the process of leaning over you fall in the water, crushing the worm and leaving you with soggy feathers for days or worse- trapped splashing helplessly inside an urn.
C– Not only have you granted your treat the freedom to burrow back into the earth from whence it came, but you’ve spilled all the refreshing liquid as well.
D– Genius, you thought like a crow! Applying Archimedes’ eureka moment of water displacement, you’ve successfully raised the water level until the wriggly treat is well within snacking distance.
Don’t believe birds can have this much brain? Click here.
Puzzle Number 2: Nutcracking
You’ve stumbled across these delicious nuts along the side of a roadway, but the shells are too rigid for you to ply open with your beak. How will you loose the legumes?
A) Smash it with your head, a rock, anything you can get your crows feet on. B) Eat the whole thing, shell and all. C) Drop the nuts on the roadway. D) Go nibble some garbage instead.
If you put A– Persistence is futile. The nut remains frustratingly encapsulated.
B– Alright, technically you do eat the nut, but your stomach will not be thanking you later. Even someone with a metabolism like a trash compactor won’t digest all that cellulose.
C– Ding ding ding! You solved my nut puzzle! The nuts are crushed under the car tires and you can go collect your reward when traffic calms down.
D– That’s just nasty. You’re better than this.
Yes, crows in cities have been known to use man’s metal death traps to break open those pesky shells, even using traffic signals to prevent being squashed in the process. Sir David Attenborough has more.
Puzzle Number 3: Ants in a Log
There is a colony of insects living inside a log, and you really want to devour them, but they go in and out of tiny holes that are too wide for your fat beak. What do?
A) Insert the end of a curved stick into one of the holes. B) Find a larger opening in the log and wedge yourself inside. C) Caw incessantly until the ants come out to yell at you, then eat them. D) Eat the log.
If you put A– Good work! The insects will crawl onto your stick and then you can remove them from the hole with your handy dandy bug snatcher.
B– You may be able to nab a few, but not before the angry colony ambushes and bites you everywhere, or else you become stuck.
C– Sorry, ants have extremely high noise tolerance.
D– No. Just… no.
New Caledonian crows in the jungles of the South Pacific islands have even been observed fashioning sticks with hooks on the end for fishing out hard-to-reach meals. Watch them in action in the lab here.
Puzzle Number 4: Finders Keepers
You’ve gathered a delicious cache of berries for winter and they’re all yours, but you notice that your friend Mortimer is watching you and he looks hungry. What are you going to do?
A) Nothing. Mortimer is your friend and he wouldn't steal from you. B) Eat all the berries right now, just in case. C) Take your berries elsewhere and hide them. D) Eat Mortimer.
If you put A– Wrong. Mortimer is a sadistic criminal with no moral standards. Berries nevermore.
B– That’s quite a lot of food in one sitting. And that was supposed to last you all winter. Nice going.
C– Excellent! Mortimer can’t see where you’ve hidden your stash, and you’ve found a cool tree cavity for safe storage.
D– You know what? You do you.
In lab studies, crows given food in the presence of other crows hide meals for later rather than leaving cached food in the open. This is evidence of their ability to predict the behavior of other animals, something we like to boast is a distinguishing quality of humans. Moral of the story: crows are mean.
One last challenge: A red-tailed hawk lands in the pine tree where your family is roosting. He doesn’t pose any particular threat other than taking up a branch or two, but this is YOUR TREE DAGNABIT and this will not stand. What is your move?
There’s really isn’t even a choice for this one…
CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW! MOB HIM! PECK OUT HIS EYES, BASH IN HIS BRAINS, GERROFF OUR TREE YA LOUSY GINGER!
Cosmopolitan, yes. Ruthlessly intelligent, yes. Socially graceful, no.
*Answer: Definitely not.